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Playing Pepper 2012: Pittsburgh Pirates

Posted on March 20, 2012 at 9:30 AM
Filed Under: Pittsburgh Pirates | Playing Pepper
In 2009, I decided to get a feel for other teams around baseball by asking bloggers for those teams some questions about their squad.  Not only has this series been very popular, but it spawned the Baseball Bloggers Alliance.  With camps opening up again and spring training getting into gear, it's time once again to play a little pepper.

Pittsburgh Pirates
72-90, fourth in the NL Central

Cellar dwellers no longer.

While the Pirates weren't able to lay the Curse of Sid Bream to rest and finish over .500 for the first time since 1992, they were able to be more of a contender and less of an afterthought.  Even as late as July 25 they were tied for the divisional title, before fading down the stretch and slipping back under the break-even mark.

The key question is, was that a mirage, one of those rare flukes that happens from time to time, or are the Pirates actually on the cusp of being good.  We've got a couple of bloggers to fill us in.  David Kaleida writes for the Bucco blog 6-4-3 Putout and can be found on Twitter at rdavidk.  Jim Roseti keeps tabs on the Pirates from North Side Notch and his Twitter handle is the same.

Keep reading as we talk about the Pirates' rotation and what new blood might make an impact this season.

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C70: What was your opinion of the team's offseason?

643: This was the best that could be done at this time without overpaying Jayson Werth-style for a free agent. Rod Barajas and Clint Barmes are average players but represent upgrades over last year's catchers (Ryan Doumit, Chris Snyder, Michael McKenry) and shortstop (Ronny Cedeno.) Firstbaseman Derrek Lee did not want to re-sign with the team (and may retire) so they traded for Casey McGehee and are betting on a rebound season (.249 BABIP in 2011, .306 in 2010.) And when Edwin Jackson turned them down to sign with Washington they traded for A.J. Burnett from the Yankees, who were desperate to shed as much of his salary as they could. The best move of the off season came just two weeks ago, when they were able to sign Andrew McCutchen to a six-year contract which runs through 2017 with a reasonable option for 2018.

NSN: The offseason was pretty "blah" up until the A.J. Burnett trade. I was originally against letting Cedeno and Maholm walk, but their replacements (Clint Barmes and Erik Bedard) are both upgrades, as long as Bedard can get through MOST of a season. Not much was done to improve the team's offense as getting a first baseman would have been nice, but it looks like Derrek Lee would rather retire than play another game for the Pirates. I really do think Burnett has a good chance to bounce back as his peripherals are still solid and his 17% HR/FB in NY would be pretty much impossible to duplicate at PNC Park.

C70: Can Pedro Alvarez get back to the form that made him a top prospect?

643: Of course he can. The real question is "Will he?" and that's honestly a 50/50 proposition at this point. He has trouble laying off the outside breaking pitch which leads to high strikeout and low walk numbers. Then, he compounds the trouble by pressing which only makes it worse. That's how you get what happened last season (.191/.272/.289 with injuries and demotion to AAA.) The best case scenario is Pedro has some early success and relaxes a bit. Then his natural talent can take over and we'll see the #2 pick in the draft play to his best capability.

NSN: Can he? Yes. "Will he," is the question. The strike outs need to be cut down and he needs to learn to not look inept against left handed pitchers. His success, in my opinion, is more important that just about any other issue with this team. He will also be under the most pressure and put under the microscope more than any other player on the team, so hopefully he can handle it.

C70: How will the rotation shape up?

643: Although Clint Hurdle has not yet released the official rotation, James McDonald, Erik Bedard, Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton will be starting. Morton is coming off of surgery to repair the labrum in his hip. His recovery is on schedule; but if he is not ready for the beginning of the season, Kevin Correia is most likely to take the mound. Brad Lincoln is next on the depth chart. 

The trade for A.J. Burnett was huge for the quality and depth of the rotation. Getting him back from his broken orbital bone quickly will be equally key. Thanks to a favorable schedule, the Pirates only need four starters for most of April. A spot start on April 14th will get them through until the fifth starter is needed on the 28th.

NSN: The rotation looks like it will start out with Jeff Karstens, Erik Bedard, James McDonald, Charlie Morton, with Kevin Correia as the fifth starter thanks to A.J. Burnett suffering the most Pirate-y thing ever. I'm sure you all know, but he broke an orbital bone fouling a ball off his face in a bunting contest. Seriously, that is so Pirates. 

As mentioned before, Bedard staying healthy is key, as he has had some great success when he is able to actually pitch. Morton will be looking to build on his successful 2011 season. Karstens, who pitched like he was unconscious (in the good way) last season, will most surely regress a bit. McDonald may just have the best talent and stuff on the staff if he can just get things together and be more efficient with his pitches. Correia really isn't worth typing a sentence on. Once Burnett is back, one of those five guys will either be hurt (Bedard), or pitching poorly (Correia), so the necessary roster move shouldn't be too difficult.

C70: Is there a prospect that will make an impact on the team this season?

643: Starling Marte still needs to refine a few things so he will start the year in AAA Indianapolis. Reports peg Marte as the kind of talent you make room for; but if he is ready to come up in June, where will he play? McCutchen isn't moving from center and Alex Presley and Jose Tabata provide good speed and defense on the corners. If these established players are all healthy, a trade will have to be made before Starling can take the field.

NSN: Most of the Pirates' top level prospects are still at least a year away. OF Starling Marte (73rd best prospect according to BA) could be a candidate for a mid-season call up if he hits at AAA like he did in AA last season. Matt Hague is a first baseman who hit .309/.372/.457 last year in AAA and will probably be sent back there. He could be called up, but shouldn't be thought of as anything but a C-level prospect, if that.

C70: Where will the team finish in their division and what are you most excited about in 2012?

643: Before the season last year, I predicted 72 wins and 4th place and that's exactly where the Pirates finished. What I did not predict was the roller coaster run that had the team in first place near the end of July. That run was built on starting pitching that performed way over its head. If the Bucs want to take another shot at finishing over .500, they will need a similar performance from their pitching staff in 2012. But I'm an optimist: I predict 83-85 wins and a third place finish, made possible in part by one of the Cardinals, Brewers and Reds having a disappointing year. It will be exciting to see if the Pirates can keep building on the good part of last season and establish themselves as a consistently winning organization.

NSN: I think the team finishes in 4th place behind St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee (in no particular order). I believe the will improve slightly on their 2011 72-90 campaign, but the consecutive season losing streak will continue. The thing I am most excited about on the ML roster is McCutchen really breaking out this year, like MVP-talk breaking out. However, a lot of attention will be given to the club's top 2 pitching prospects in Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole to see how they progress.

I appreciate David and Jim telling us a little bit more about a divisional rival.  That sub-.500 streak is going to snap sometime and that sometime probably isn't too far away.

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